Cambodia has the largest contiguous block of natural forest remaining on the Asian continent’s mainland and is an important constituent of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, which is one of 35 such hotspot designations worldwide. Five of nine high priority biodiversity conservation corridors in the Greater Mekong Sub-region lie in Cambodia (RGC: The Fifth National Report To The Convention On Biological Diversity).
Biodiversity creates ecological, economic and cultural positive impacts for Cambodians. Among other things, it provides ecosystem services and an opportunity for economic development and improved livelihoods if protected and managed sustainably. The National Report on Protected Areas and Development defines several biodiversity management regions in Cambodia.
Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot
135 mammal species
599 bird species
173 reptile species
72 amphibian species
350 moth and butterfly species
955 fresh and marine fish and aquatic species
>4,500 vascular plant species
Of all these species, 1.6% are on the IUCN’s Red List, which includes 2.5% of globally threatened mammals, 2% of globally threatened birds, and 5% of globally threatened reptiles (European Union Delegation to Cambodia Country Environment Profile).
Cambodia is a developing country with a largely poor population aspiring to reduce poverty. This combined with exceptional biodiversity creates challenges of balancing conservation and development. Most people rely on natural resources for their livelihoods, although many resources have been privatized and often over harvested (Open Development Cambodia and RGC: The Fifth National Report To The Convention On Biological Diversity). Habitat loss, fragmentation and isolation are the most pressing problems for Cambodian biodiversity:
- Deforestation and agricultural encroachment due to ELCs, agricultural expansion and intensification
- (Illegal) logging
- Dam development, human settlements and other infrastructure developments
- Species inventions
- Adverse climate change impacts
- Small-scale local destruction, such as cutting wood for fuel
In Cambodia the forest quality suffers more than the forest cover area because logging concentrates on luxury timber tree species and larger-size trees. Economic land concessions (ELCs) transfer authority for the economic development of a plot of land from the government to local or foreign investors, often for an extensive period of time. As of 2013, the Cambodian government has approved almost 2 million ha of ELCs. Most ELCs use the former forest land to cultivate rubber, palm oil, cashew nuts, cassava and livestock (RGC: The Fifth National Report To The Convention On Biological Diversity).
Spotlight: Tigers in Cambodia
Historically, Asian tigers roamed the dry forests of Eastern Cambodia and the tropical rainforests of the Cardamom mountains. As recent as the 1960s, Cambodia was becoming known globally for its abundance of wildlife. Only 30 years later, the forests which once hosted large populations of tigers had been devastated by decades of war, civil unrest and an unstable political climate. By now, the kingdom’s tiger population declined so drastically that resident breeding wild tigers are no longer recorded and the species is functionally extinct (WWF Cambodia here and here).